Piers are storied, blurred by association and half-remembered scraps of history, no two the same but all sharing essential qualities of function and form, water and linearity, functional structures with froth on top. Long jetties or working wharves for ferries and fish and coal and beer, pilings buried in the mud, launch pads for a walk to the horizon to see the sails and feel the throb of engines, a place to toss a line over and catch dinner given a little luck. Working places topped by a fur coat of swank and fun and camaraderie and a different sort of view.
Take the long finger of Southend extending into the flat estuary, always pointing to Kent past the alien tripods of the Red Sand Forts, the outpouring sea reduced almost to sand and mud even at the far tip a mile from the shore. Here a paddle boat occasionally stops and the lifeboat launches and the tall ships anchor awaiting the tide, all ignored by the container vessels chugging remorselessly to Tilbury and the fishing fleet snoozing in the Leigh swatchways.
Or Wigan, fabled canal pier of working class struggle, the aim of endless tramping to where coal was heaved into waiting barges from a staithe demolished before Orwell got near the place, never attainable, a wharf to shimmer behind the eyelids of tired men sleeping in the ditch, or gingerly massaging feet through boots they dare not remove. Today the pier itself is lost, the canal-side become a site of nostalgic ambition for better opportunities after the eviscerating end of coal in northern England. The legend of the work at the end of the road has lost little power, adding its sharper taste to the evocation of a walk to the sea in breezy sunshine.
Blackpool and Brighton, north and south are the flashy cousins, gaudy spinning-wheels of lights, screaming, popping gunfire at unarmed teddy bears and cheers of derision. The bright lights reveal the shadowed underside of Pinkie Brown’s world: prostitutes and pickpocketry and minor criminality maturing to the bigger leagues, laundering the cash of heists and racecourse fixes and casual thuggery. These piers have their disappeared, and the escapees who ran from the static, raucous playground for the open road and the circus. There are few elephants to be found on piers.
The pier of the promenade is somewhere else again. Penarth in South Wales, or Brighton’s old West Pier, were places where couples showed off her new ring and later (or sooner) the stroller. Maybe tea would be drunk, or there would be a show, a show still filled with innuendo and thigh-slapping double entendre, the successor to the music-hall cross-dressing and feathery extravagance, the wave-riding working-men’s clubs dressed up for family entertainment during the week by the sea.
Today, the seaside pier, the successful renovation of Penarth’s pleasure walk with its distant views of Somerset and Cardiff docks and its immaculately restored 1930 dance hall, is a triumph of nostalgia over experience, renewing the romance of manageable distance and a strange perspective on the familiar. It flaunts elaborate ironwork and tiling, bright paintwork and hosts a busy sea-angling club in a stout hut on the end. Underneath, the timbers still fight the remorseless, impersonal onslaught of tide, the suck of stone and mud grated in and out in seawater washed brown by the dirt of beach and riverwrack and silt. Abrasion made liquid. The legs remain, not impervious, never that, but strong still with their weight of cast iron and heritage buildings and hope and memory.